Monthly Archives: October 2008

Rules of Organizing: Like Organizes Like (except when it doesn’t)

One of the best ways to build rapport and organize a community is to work with an insider.

In fact, usually the best organizer is an insider. This is a fundamental rule of organizing: like organizes like.

African American organizers will have more success organizing African Americans. War veterans will have more success organizing war veterans. You can fill that equation with any group:

  • students
  • Detroiters
  • Catholics
  • homebrewers
  • retirees
  • old hippies
  • loggers

An insider knows the language. She knows the values. People of that community trust her because she’s one of them.

Like organizes like.

So, what do you do if you’re not in the community you’re organizing?

First of all, don’t give up.  There are many examples of successful organizers who aren’t part of the community. Unions, for example, hire a lot of organizers who have never worked on the assembly line, or as a janitor, or as a truck driver.

Likewise, at ICPJ, I’ve seen plenty of good organizing within faith communities from people with no particular faith affiliation.

Second, find an insider ally. Find someone in the community who will teach you the community norms, who will introduce you around, and who will use their insider credibility to help get you in.

Third, learn the community. Study it. If you’re organizing over-the-road truckers, learn the difference between a Kenworth and a Peterbuilt. If you’re organizing people of faith, learn each traditions’ holidays and religious terms.

Fourth, be honest about who you are. You should learn about the community you’re organizing, not fake it as if you were part of that community. Are you a white organizer in a Latino community? It probably won’t work to talk about your barrio. You’re job is not to “act Latino.” They know you’re not Latino. You’re job is to respect to the community enough to learn about it

Finally, remember that every rule has an exception. That’s why this post is titled “Like Organizes Like (except when it doesn’t).”

What best trumps the like organizes like rule is when someone makes a courageous break from their community for a higher purpose. That gives them the instant credibility to organize beyond their community.

That’s why peace groups are always working to get people from Veterans for Peace or Iraq Veterans Against the War to speak at their rallies. Their history as soldiers and current opposition to war gives them the instant credibility to organize pacifists, church folk, politicians, almost anybody.

Other examples include former tabacco company lobbiest organizing for smoking bans, former gang members speaking out against violence, and Republicans-turned-Democrats or Democrats-turned-Republicans.

Still, these are the exceptions. If you find this kind of exception, bonus. Until the, keep at it, find allies, learn about the community, and be who you are.

You need long-range and close-range vision

I wear eyeglasses to help me see things far away.

I know plenty of people who wear reading glasses to help them see things nearby.

It can be hard to have both long-range and short-range vision in community organizing.

If you only have long-range vision, you get lost in dreams. You know exactly how the world should be, but you cannot take meaningful action here and now to move toward that goal.

If you only have short-range vision, you get lost in tactics. You might carry out a masterfully run campaign or project, the only problem is that it doesn’t move you any closer to your goal.

Anti-abortion groups have done a masterful job of having both long and short-range vision. Their long-range vision is to stop all abortion, largely by criminalizing it. However, they recognize that the can’t get there all at once. so they’ve engaged in a strategy to chip away at access to and support for abortion through waiting periods, mandatory sonograms, and other short-term tactics. And it’s worked.

Can we create equally effective progressive campaigns on issues like ending poverty, caring for the earth, and overcoming discrimination?